Falling in love (again) according to Buddhism

I’m continuing with the subject of love, desire and attachment started in this article.

Our attachment can be very strong. We’re in love with the idea of love in this society. It sometimes seems as if our whole society is focused on finding the right person — we need someone to complete us. We can’t be happy on our ownsome. “I need someone to give me that security, to hold my hand in the movies. That person is waiting. I know there’s happiness waiting somewhere for me. The credits will roll for me.” (Don’t you find it interesting how the credits roll just at that point when people have finally landed in each other’s arms – they have to be quick about it, too, before the story proceeds any further.)

As time goes on in our search for the ideal partner, we are often willing to settle for less. This is because when we are young, half an hour in front of the mirror can make us look like a million dollars, but as we get older we need that half an hour just to make ourselves look vaguely presentable. In an article about baby boomers not too long ago, the implication was that we are not allowed to get old or stop searching for the ideal partner. No, we are simply “seasoned”, like a well cooked leg of lamb or a rusty frying pan. Apparently there are umpteen books explaining how you can attract someone even into your sixties, seventies, eighties… It isn’t all on the outside, but it does help if you take care of your appearance and, if you can afford the nips and tucks, go ahead! It doesn’t ever stop! You’re not even allowed to relax when you’re seventy, much less when you’re under forty. According to this article, you’re not encouraged to recall that you’ve already had a partner (or five) and don’t want to go through all of that again.

What might Buddha say about this? Not that people should never partner up, or should be scared away from love. Perhaps that seeking happiness so desperately from outside in any form is a fool’s game as it is incapable of giving us real or lasting happiness. Especially if the other person is as neurotic as we are!  How are they going to give us security when they can’t even find it themselves?

Falling in love (again)

So let’s look at the kind of thing that happens when we fall in love. If our attachment comes on strong, it is like falling in a ditch — completely out of our control.

Let’s say we’re hanging out with good friends. We’re having a whale of a time, joking, affectionate, enjoying a great night out, until suddenly a really attractive person (to our eyes) walks into the restaurant. Suddenly our happiness is over there. We’re feeling a bit bereft. We’re fast forgetting about our friends because now it’s, “I’ve got to meet that person!” Then they walk out the door, taking our happiness with them!

The scheming begins. How to get their number, set up a date, have their kids. There seem to be three stages to this kind of desire—scheming, indulging, and recovery. Scheming – they are going to complete me, this is it!  Maybe we’re lucky enough and we do get their phone number, their email. We wait by the phone – are people still waiting by the phone now?  Well, in the old days, before we were plugged 24/7 into the cloud, it went something like this: “I’ll just go buy some groceries, I’ll be away for an hour or so, then by the time I’ve got home they are bound to have called.” But no messages. No emails either. Nowadays, maybe no texts, or FB messages. This is painful. We get a call from our best friend, “No, I can’t talk just now, I can’t tie up the line”, then another from our mom, and we try not to sound too disappointed, “Yes, I know you gave birth to me but ….” Any addiction we had to email and Facebook is now really overpowering, but at the same time none of our messages is of the slightest interest.

Then maybe the right caller ID or a relevant email does show up, and, ecstatically relieved, we do manage to hook up. We take a thousand photos of our happiness on our Smart phone, from every angle. Everything about them is delicious and special – their perfume, their eating habits, the way they drive… They can do no wrong. The fact that others don’t get it, or even see faults in our angel, is just a sad indictment on their lack of discrimination.

This phase of romantic indulgence goes on, they tell us from studies, for about six months.

Then at some point we say to this person, “Honey, I really love you and want you to be happy.” And they reply, “I’m really glad to hear you say that because I’ve been taking ballroom dancing classes and I’ve fallen for Giovanna, she’s Italian.”  Suddenly everything goes pear-shaped. That wasn’t what we meant.  We say, “But I didn’t want you to be happy if you’re not giving me happiness!”

Now all the objects of happiness are causes of suffering. The same perfume is now unbearable, the same car is a horrible reminder. All the things that seemed causes of our happiness are now causes of our pain. Maybe we take all their stuff and throw it out of the window. “Take all of your stuff and get out!”  We think it’s all their fault, but really the scales have fallen from our eyes and we are realizing that they weren’t the source of our happiness to begin with.

With attachment, we are set up from the get go for disillusionment when that person inevitably cannot deliver the happiness we sought in them, when they cannot live up to our hype. We need time to recover because thwarted attachment is very, very painful. It can make people feel down for months. It can drive people to kill themselves. And it is very dangerous because when we’re in the indulging phase it can look so good that we forget its outcome and fall for it time and time again.

As mentioned, attachment is called “sticky desire” If you have hairy arms, you can try this experiment, if not you’ll just have to imagine it. Plaster a sticky band aid onto your arm, leave it for a bit, and then tear it off. How does that feel? At some point also we are separated one way or another from our object of attachment, and it hurts. Tears. We often want to lash out.

In Transform Your Life, Geshe Kelsang says:

“If we are skillful, friends can be like treasure chests, from whom we can gain the precious wealth of love, compassion, patience, and so forth. For our friends to function in this way, however, our love for them must be free from attachment. If our love for our friends is mixed with strong attachment, it will be conditional on their behaving in ways that please us, and as soon as they do something we disapprove of, our fondness for them may turn to anger.”

Honey on a razor’s edge

Buddha used an exquisite analogy for attachment: it is like licking honey from a razor’s edge. If we want just the honey, we need to get rid of the attachment. But we don’t need to get rid of the intimacy or closeness. We can have that closeness without attachment. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be close to others but there’s everything wrong with trying to be close to others through attachment. In fact, strong attachment actually makes us hungrier, we can never get enough.

It is only with love that the gap between people is bridged. In attachment, it’s all about a dualistic “me and you”; we’re not actually in union. Because the object of attachment is necessarily “out there”, and we are “in here”, we can never get close to it any more than a donkey can catch up to the carrot on the stick. True intimacy, true “us”, comes from love – affectionate, cherishing, and wishing love.

Since this article, I have written some more on this popular subject here: Love without pain and Want better relationships?

Your turn: what do you think about Buddha’s analysis of love and attachment from your own experience?

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

72 thoughts on “Falling in love (again) according to Buddhism”

  1. This was a great article and I really enjoyed reading it! I am wondering whether you have any tips on how to learn to prevent the attachment becoming too strong. How can I love friends and family unconditionally? How do I not let the attachment get in the way of my happiness?

  2. I was hoping for some guidance on how to grow out of this pain of attachment and how to cope with the negative effects from being in a relationship with someone who also appears to be badly affected by me not fulfilling their needs which are different from mine ie I long for affection he says I don’t make him feel looked after but I don’t know what to do to make him happy. Feels like I have to squash my needs, try to attend to his, expect nothing in return. ..don’t know if I can do that without any affecion 🙁

    1. One question to ask is why you are in this relationship and is it helping you, especially spiritually speaking. If it is, then of course there has to be give and take.

  3. This isn’t the article I was hoping for, this article merely describes attachment in the guise of romantic love. It does not delve into what we all want and desire, which is love itself. I am left as puzzled as I was before I read this.

  4. …so I’m just wondering if this idea of non-attachment is equal to the idea of unconditional love. In some ways I wonder then if this sets us up for no expectations at all – eg. if I love you with non-attachment, unconditionally, you may behave to me in any manner you wish (uncooperative, aggressive, even at the extreme end, abusive) because I am solely responsible for my own happiness? And we continue in the relationship with no expectations for the other person to treat us decently, because then we would be projecting our expectations onto them?…or would we remove ourself from such a situation because we do not wish to be the object of their negative actions (as I understand it: negative actions equal anything that has the potential to cause harm) thereby not contributing to their negative karma? Any clarification would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Good question. Cherishing others doesn’t mean we become dumb and let others use us … we can take steps to encourage better behavior or remove ourselves from the situation when necessary. We can do whatever needs to be done on the outside, but our main job is inside — our mind is peaceful and patient, we are not tying ourselves up into self-cherishing knots.

      1. Many of us have difficulty in distinguishing these two important factors, inside and outside and the inter-relationship these two have on one another. It would be wonderful if you could provide us with some more of your teachings and insights to reach clarity on this very important point about attachment and relationships.

      2. Many of us have difficulty in distinguishing between inside and outside and the inter-relationship between the two when it comes to attachment and relationships. I would be grateful if you could provide further insights into the two and how the inside – peaceful, patient may have an impact on decisions we may take to stay in a relationship or choose to leave.

        1. Yes, there is a balance. We have to follow our common sense when it comes to staying in or leaving a relationship. If this relationship is preventing us from being able to help others, for example, or wearing us out, it may not be a good thing. I will try and find the time to write more but i can’t promise when. I think you might well enjoy reading the book New Eight Steps to Happiness (published by Tharpa) because that book makes the difference between love and attachment very clear.

  5. This is just talking about the superficial way of love… the attached love… i’m still looking for an article that describes the love of souls… ho do you manage that unexplainable way of love?

  6. Well written and explained. I lived in a kadampa centre for 2 years and read many of Geshlas books. I always (still do) he struggled to impart a wealth of knowledge so your articles are helping with that. Love and congrats…

  7. I think the concept is still vague to the reader as what you want to say is more about expectations and reasonable needs. Anyone reading this would assume that attachment is a unique or rare occurrence when it’s actually the norm so you might consider advising us to learn more about the middle path and how to meditate.

  8. I very much appreciate the article Luna. I understand meditation and mindfulness are both helpful in leaning more towards expectation-free love and more away from attachment. As someone who has fallen in love and repeatedly walked right into the attachment trap, do you have any other direct practices or advice on how to avoid the stickiness?

  9. This is a wonderful article. I think that every religion can enrich our life if we’re able to open for it … and attachment is a big topic not only for an individual / for lovers / for a family etc but for every human society!

  10. So important. Have a relationship or not, yes, but either way don’t have attachment. Freeing when you realize that you’re the only one that you need to fix!

  11. Ha ha! ‘Was I drunk for the entire relationship?’ Yes, desirous attachment is like that. You wake up with a headache and feel like youve been steam rollered but you keep doing it… how nuts is that? My dad sums it all up now with ‘Id rather have a pie’…ha! Great article xxx

  12. Hi Luna,

    This was a great read and a real eye opener. We do sometimes loose track of who we really are and the difference between ‘love’ and ‘attachment’ becomes blurry. And we can only prevent it by strengthening our minds. Can you explain to me a few steps or rules that will help me exercise more self0control and direct me towards the right path.


  13. I’d like to respond to Alex’s comment about the guy’s lack of trustworthiness. As a NKT buddhist, I recognize that the “guy” has a great level of attachment, lack of true self understanding, and may believe that Giovanna or the next woman will make him happy, sounds like he wasn’t willing to use the current relationship to be real and honest. His path will be riddled with jumping from place to place until he too comes to the realization that he is creating his own suffering by mistreating others and then running to a new relationship for a high, then to discard that woman for the next.

    The young lady who he broke up with has a great opportunity as well to heal her wounds and recognize where her attachments may be strong. It however doesn’t mean that its the deep love she had for him wasn’t truly sad for her when she saw him leave and been the recipient of his dishonesty. I have a great wish that she grow within herself, continue to love, know that others suffer from delusions and step aside when she sees someone behaving in a harmful manner, truly knowing that he nor anyone can’t hurt her, that his behavior of deceitfulness and fear are only actions that will harm himself. She doesn’t have to take it personally, and can wish for his awakening.

  14. It’s so true. We are ‘in love with the idea of love in this society.’ And if we’re not doin it, we’re failures. It’s so sad.
    Thanks for a breath of wisdom.

  15. Was i drunk the entire relationship? Yes i think i was. I allowed my self to become fully absorbed into their every movement and my mind would not except that this was BIG attachment. LOVE it is i said over and over again i never felt this way, making excuses for my eractic behaviour towards them. I allowed myself to LOSE so much of my own self worth and even my faith. I trusted in this mind and expected great results of happiness, contentment, and security, yet this sticky awful mind cost me so much more than i realised at the time. I think we really need to understand the power of attachment and how it destroys all peace that we have. We become angry and close our hearts off to the world shutting the door to love and compassion. I remember one of Pema Chodron quotes ” dont let life harden your heart” This does happen! Attachment not only destroys our relationships with others it also leaves our mind closed to the possibility of Love. W e project our pain on everyone else and even if some one is suffering all we can think about is MY SUFFERING. Its easy to write about this sticky mind but one feels we need to be aware constantly what our expectations are of others. Our mindfulness needs to be strong and vigilant at all times and practice just loving without expectations.

    1. You’re right, strong attachment undermines our self-worth, and it also undermines our faith. That is one of its worst faults. We are so convinced that happiness is to be found in this person that we entirely neglect our practice of finding reliable happiness from within. Plus attachment does harden our hearts, including to everyone else who is not the object of our attachment, who often receive short shrift from us. Thank you for pointing out all these things from your own experience.

  16. Thank you so much for the words of wisdom, it was exactly what I needed to hear- attachment is sooo focused on as part of society its hard to know where our real relationships begin & end. Keep up the wonderful work flourishing kadam dharma, this site certainly illuminates the teachings for many : )

  17. Thanks for all these comments and insights.. it is such a rare thing to find so much wisdom placed here at the kitchen sink level.. Yes it is all crazy what this disturbing attachment does to us.. When I think back I think what a waste of precious time and how much suffering for me and others..
    How it is only becoming more familair and praticed in true love can I find the real peace and a freedom from emotional turmoil and the guilt over difficulties in my relationship..

    Many heartfelt thanks to you Luna.. this is an incredible opportunity to connect with Geshe la’s wisdom for all of us..

  18. I love the beautiful artwork! And the funny cartoon…
    The article is good too, thanks.

  19. Such a fantastic article! I remember my very painful ‘love stories’. Such pain from the beginning to the end! All that waiting for a phone call like a slave. I’m so glad I will not go through that again.

    I hope instead to learn to love purely, without attachment, all living beings. Pure love is such a wonderful gift, the more we can love like this the more it grows.

  20. Luna what a great article…! i guess many of us had passed through those terrible feelings…and of course many of us were desperate to find that so, so, charming “Blue Prince” …who really loves us …and to whom we could really love …(without knowing how to do it). It took me 20 years of marriage and lots of suffering to realize how bad it is to love with attachment. Before Gueshe-la´s explanation of love, the wish for others to be happy, i had to experience some “full of attachment relations” with all its consequences, pain, fear, uncertainty, jealousy, it took me a long time to recover. Until i found someone whom i decided to love more than my wishes to be happy with someone. This Buddhist approach was much easy for me, no expectations at all, living the present moment, just try to make him happy… of course we know all relationships are impermanent in samsara, and sooner or later they will end…in a sad way…so i got to this conclusion, that the one and only true so, so, charming “Blue Prince” is : Buddha Heruka, he will never deceive us and he is someone whom we can really trust for all our lives!

    1. It is amazing how much time we can waste on attachment, years and years. Luckily, it is never too late to learn to love, as you can testify.

  21. If I really love you (without any attachment) then by definition I want you to be happy. If being with Giovanna makes you happier than being with me, then of course you should be with her. How wonderful it would be if we could think this clearly!

    However, pending being perfect, if we can even think in this direction we’ll experience less heartache, and so will those we love. In 2008 I wasted a year of my life because I could not accept being “dumped” by I guy I believed I loved. I now know it was almost pure attachment and that I had caused my own suffering. To add insult to injury, my motorbike was stolen around that time (I “loved” that bike too). How ridiculous!

    May everyone be happy. May everyone be free from suffering. May everyone have equanimity, free from hatred and attachment.

    1. Yes, good point, “pending being perfect, if we can even think in this direction we’ll experience less heartache, and so will those we love.” It is like a dimmer switch.

  22. Yes, a wonderful article. I think I have experienced it all apart from the “being in a relationship just wanting the other person to be happy”. It seems pretty impossible to me, from my current perspective of self-cherishing – why would I enter into a relationship with someone just to make them happy? I recognise the phases and even have iTunes playlists to represent them – called Phase 1, 2 & 3! I have considered the teachings on love and attachment, been scared, disillusioned and then briefly convinced myself again that happiness can be found in being attached to someone (I was soon reminded that it can’t). So is my current view based in cynicism or wisdom? I think both. But what about this for a question – is it a good idea to enter into a relationship knowing that you are probably going to bring hurt and suffering to this person that you are trying to love? Knowing that try as you might, you are going to fail to love purely. Should we ever do that?

    1. Ha ha about your iTunes playlist 🙂

      You ask a good question. I think that if we take responsibility for our own intentions and actions, keep a good heart as delusion-free as possible, and try always to improve, we cannot then blame ourselves if our partner suffers.

      It is a good idea to renounce ordinary attachment-filled relationships, but we don’t need to be scared away from relationships that we intend to build on love.

      What do others think in answer to Mike’s question?

    2. I think the pain that results when the kinds of situations attachment creates fall apart can be profoundly useful, humbling even. I think at these times we encounter our own hearts most directly.

      I’ll try to love without attachment but i know i’ll fail. i like the idea of dialing it down, that feels like a more doable option. I’ll also try harder to recognize those charming people who cultivate attachment in others simply as a way of asserting themselves. It’s their style… how they go about life. But you know i’d like to bet they, just like we, believe their intentions are nothing but good.

      It’s all muddy. Do the best you can and then use the pain that ensues to open yourself up more. I think it’s the only way to go.

  23. What a great set of articles, thank you very much. I relate a lot to the part about waiting for messages, by phone, FB or text. A couple of years ago I was ‘flirting’ with someone and ‘message waiting’ took over my entire life. I ended up meeting her in person and telling her face-to-face that I from that day forth I refused to engage in emotional conversation by SMS or email. The dating quickly ended (dumped by email, funny now, but tragic then!). But boy I was glad after a few months – SMS and email lead to enormous misinterpretations that distort our reconstruction of events significantly! And this can spiral us into hypothetical-lands pretty badly, It’s nice without that in my life.

    ‘The guy that fell for Giovanna’. He sounds like a real untrustworthy person, especially if he told his partner that and expected her to just accept it. Love is about trust and commitment. My point is that it isn’t entirely about ‘his girlfriend’s attachment’, but also about the ‘guy’s commitment’. What do you think to this perspective on his girlfriend’s reaction?

    1. Thank you.

      No one is letting the guy off the hook, clearly he was behaving selfishly, but we cannot control the minds of others until we have controlled our own! When cleaning up delusions such as attachment, we try to use others’ behavior as more of a mirror relecting our own, rather than waste more time assigning blame outwards (which doesn’t do any good in any case.)

  24. Absolutely spot on! That’s the best version of attachment i’ve ever read. Thank you. And very right too Vide Kadampa. It was sooo painful every time for me too, leaves me scared of ever having a relationship ever again though.

  25. some people are luckier than others in love, they may have the wrong intention of love but a man and woman together is a natural thing.
    only the single people or somone who as been hurt seem to lose interest in the opposite sex.
    I think been a buddhist it is easier to have a relationship that is built on love as we are more mindfull of are feelings knowing which is grasping and which is friendship or love.. not all relationships are built on love.

    1. Yes, we can gradually diminish our attachment and increase our love, thanks to the clear explanation of these two minds given by Buddha.

  26. Great article-sooo true. I remind myself about this exhaustive pursuit regularly=and regain my sanity!

  27. This article cracked me up. Especially, the 30 minutes at the mirror. I also liked the fact you pointed we can still have closeness just without the stickiness. The three phases were also helpful. 🙂

    1. We all want to be close to others — not surprisingly, considering we depend upon them for every atom of our being 🙂 Only self-cherishing and attachment build up the walls of isolation.

  28. Hi Luna – you had me laughing out loud with this one! Yes I remember infatuation was SO painful. Who is she? How can I meet her? How can I strike up a conversation? What should I say to her? How can I contrive things so we can get together? It went on and on… The restlessness of it all – a long, drawn out heartache.

    One of the first things about Buddhism that rocked my world was the explanation of love being simply the wish for others to be happy. After all those songs asking ‘what is love’ and so many late night drunken round table discussions with friends about what love really was, to have Geshe-la sum it up exactly in a handful of words was astonishing – and liberating.

    What is so disturbing is that just about everyone on the planet has precisely the wrong view about how to be happy and what love means. Especially since the answer is within everyone’s grasp.

    Thanks for the article Luna 🙂

    1. Thanks Vide. The encouraging thing is, though, how easy it is to understand the differences between love and attachment once it is pointed out… meaning there is hope for us all, we just have to get the word out, skillfully and bit by bit.

Leave a Reply